Is There a Right Way to Teach Online?

10 Mar 2020 8:25 PM | Anonymous

by Jennifer L. W. Thompson, Ph.D., University of Maryland Global Campus

The original title for this post was Online Teaching: Quest for the Magic Bullet. This title has several benefits, not the least of which is that it has a colon which makes it instantly more valid. In addition, administrators are increasingly looking to online classes as the panacea for rising costs and lowering enrollments. However, the most important thing about this title is that it implies that we are looking for the best formula, the right formula for teaching our students. Is there a right way to teach online? No. There is no one right way, there is no best way, but there are many things that teachers can do to make the online experience more effective and engaging for students.

As with any teaching, preparation is the key. Successful online teaching is not as simple as taking what you do in a face to face class and “moving it online.” Rather there are other things to think about such as, good design principles, online etiquette, content delivery mechanisms, etc. It also requires that you start thinking about the classroom as a learner centered environment rather than one that is focused on the instructor. Teaching online requires even more planning and preparation which starts by designing the course and the classroom.

Keep in mind that it is often the case in online teaching that you need to be a little extra. Go further, be bolder, have extra enthusiasm.

Welcome your students to the class. This can be through a first day announcement, or sending students an email, or do both. The messaging can give students an overview of what they will learn throughout the semester and generate enthusiasm, and it can give students a good first impression of the classroom and of you as the faculty member. It is a great way to introduce students to yourself, your teaching philosophy and your personality. Do not be afraid to let your sense of humor shine through. Students, likewise, should introduce themselves to you and to one another within the classroom. You should welcome each student to class individually as they introduce themselves, which is a good way to begin building rapport and mutual respect. It can also help you to learn about the background experiences that students are bringing to the classroom, which can, in turn, inform how you present certain topics, or how you frame discussion questions to tap into their previous knowledge and experience.

In this Welcome message be sure to communicate your expectations for the students and the classroom, including things like due dates, frequency and substance of contributions, and codes of conduct for the classroom. Often faculty will share their expectations for students and tell them what they can expect of them as well, again fostering a sense of rapport, respect, and community. Something like, I expect you to do your reading and preparation in a timely manner, I expect you to show interest and courtesy and to ask challenging questions, I expect you to meet deadlines and communicate with me if you have any difficulties.  In return, you can expect me to be professional, motivational, fair, and responsive, and to provide timely and constructive feedback.

Also, as part of your introductory remarks to students, tell them how to navigate the classroom-the more organized it is the easier this will be. Consider your audience when doing this. Are these new students to your program, new students to online learning? --If so, they may need links to tutorials for using the Learning Management System (such as how to post assignments or responses to discussion board questions. For instance, should they post as replies or as a new thread) or links to support services. If your audience is more experienced students in a research or capstone course, they may need reminders about support services and you may need to tell them about any assessments or software tools that you are using that they may not have encountered previously.

During the course, be present. Just because the class is taking place in a virtual space where you cannot go does not mean that you should be an “absentee professor.” Check into the classroom often, but more than that let the students know you are there by posting announcements and reminders at least one a week, by answering student questions within the classroom, by responding to emails in a timely manner, and by posting comments or new information within the discussion boards at least every other day or so. Encourage students to engage with you, the material and one another.

In terms of content, it is not so much deciding what to include, but rather thinking about the mechanism for delivery.  However, I would encourage teachers to really consider whether they need to include all 16 chapters of a textbook or if they can be more selective with the content needed to meet the learning outcomes in the course. Not only can students read about a topic, but they can also listen to a lecture or podcast or watch a video or slide presentation. They can then actively interact with the content.  We know that students learn by transferring their learning to new situations, problems and contexts and that student learning is largely dependent on practice. Provide a variety of occasions and contexts in which students can use and practice their knowledge. 

Get feedback throughout the course and reflect on your teaching at the end of the course. Feel free to ask students whether they need clarification on an assignment or on your expectations or the layout of the classroom. At the end of the class think about how the class went, are there areas for improvement? Are there things that worked well that can be incorporated further? Review and update the content for the course. Make slight alterations to your assessments and discussion topics to make them timely and unique from the previous semester.

When it comes to teaching online, just remember what you already know about good teaching. Students perform better when they are given opportunities to engage with faculty and with each other, when they are given tasks that require active learning, are encouraged to spend “time on task”, and when they are given prompt feedback and high expectations (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). Each of these principles can be introduced, promoted and perfected in the online classroom.


Chickering, A. W., Gamson, Z. F., & American Association for Higher Education, W. D. (1987). Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education. AAHE Bulletin, 3–7.

Dr. Jennifer Thompson has been teaching online for over 14 years and is currently Program Director and Collegiate Professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Maryland Global Campus.  Jennifer is past co-chair of APA’s Committee on Associate and Baccalaureate Education and is on the Program Committee for the Eastern Psychological Association.  Jennifer received her B.A. from Vanderbilt University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from American University­­­. She served on the Steering Committee for APA’s Summit for the National Assessment of Psychology (SNAP), is co-editor of Project Assessment, and is on the Steering Committee for APA’s Introductory Psychology Initiative.

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